DALLAS — On Friday morning, trying to fill the slow hours before the biggest game in the show’s storyline, Iowa associate head coach Jan Jensen decided to see her boss. She went to Hawkeyes head coach Lisa Bluder’s hotel suite, and for a few long moments, the pair sat in unusual silence. Bluder was the one who broke it.
We are the only people who believe we can do this.
“Yes,” Jensen replied. “But those are the only people who matter.”
Some of it was simple confidence, the kind of ordinary belief needed to fuel any surprise victory. But some of it was rooted in details. They believed that No. 2 Iowa could defeat reigning undefeated champion No. 1 South Carolina in the the last four because they had a detailed game plan to compete with the size of the Gamecocks by packing up the paint and forcing them to take outside shots. And they believed because they had something else that their opponent did not. Iowa had Caitlin Clark. This part wasn’t so much a belief as a profound certainty: Against the best defense in the country, on the biggest stage of his career, Clark would shine. That was just how he worked.
His belief turned out to be well placed.
Iowa made South Carolina look awkward all night. The Hawkeyes scored first and led for almost two minutes, though never by much. His game plan worked, and so did his star guard. In the kind of transcendent acting that she makes seem routine, Clark scored 41 points with eight assists and six rebounds. (She is the first player in NCAA Tournament history with consecutive games of 40 points or more.) When the buzzer rang, Clark was the one with the ball, and he tossed it into the air with gleeful, cathartic abandon: Iowa 77, South Carolina 73. Her work was done for the night.
Clark was responsible for all 18 of Iowa’s fourth quarter points, either scoring or assisting, and scored the final 13.
“You can see it in his eyes,” Jensen said. “She just…she leans into the moments. She wants the moments.”
She got this one. Even so, it was also surprising how much she shared with the other Hawkeyes.
“The biggest thing is knowing how much my teammates trust me,” Clark said. “I was given the ball in the biggest moments of the game on the biggest stage, but also at the same time, my teammates really passed and played big minutes… Everyone played their part.”
For center Monika Czinano, that meant a calm and consistent presence in the post, finishing with 18 points. (“If we probably could have allowed Czinano a little less opportunity, she could have turned the other way around,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “She was the one that put them over the top with her contributions.” ”). Gabbie Marshall, that meant intense and complicated defense, including three key steals. For Kate Martin, “the player who does all the dirty work, she fools people,” according to Clark, it meant seven boards.
Iowa’s strategy was clear from the start: They were going to fill the post and force South Carolina out of their comfort zone. Just 16.5% of the Gamecocks’ points came from 3-pointers this year — 351 of Division I’s 361 programs. But Iowa was going to clog up the paint so badly that South Carolina had to shoot from beyond the arc. This strategy was partly analytical and partly a kind of psychological warfare.
“It’s definitely harder to shoot when you’re that wide open,” Martin said. “Naturally, you have more time to think.”
Iowa knew it could be tough for South Carolina because the Hawkeyes expected it to be tough for them. They had discussed this before the game with one of their sports psychologists: With Clark hoping to draw multiple defenders, Iowa wanted everyone else ready to shoot wide. But they found themselves turning the idea around in their defense. The Hawkeyes felt they they were ready to take those outside shots wide open. But they had a suspicion that the Gamecocks might not be.
For the most part, they were right. Only Zia Cooke, the Gamecocks’ best pure shooter, was able to execute and finish the first half in double digits. (She scored 18 points on 8-for-13 shooting and finished the night with 24.) But Iowa’s strategy seemed to unsettle everyone else. Perhaps the best sign of just how much the style fired the Gamecocks from his regular game? They made Olivia Thompson check in twice during the first half. Yes, Thompson, the former player who averages just four minutes per game, usually near the end of the night when the result is almost official. But Thompson can shoot 3-pointers, and with this kind of defensive pressure in the paint, South Carolina was doing everything it could to extend his range.
“I thought, when they went there, that’s not what they like to doJensen said of seeing Thompson. “That was like, if you’re playing chess, well, our queen moved pretty quickly into a pretty good position.”
The game plan was primarily put together by special assistant Jenni Fitzgerald. The coaching staff knew it was something of a gamble: if South Carolina did To come out with those shots falling, Iowa would have to think of something else, because they knew how much they were giving against a team that was bigger and stronger in the paint. The Gamecocks saw a few more of those three go down eventually. (Rookie redshirt guard Raven Johnson came off the bench and went 3-for-6 from beyond the arc.) But it was not enough.
Iowa was further helped by South Carolina’s foul trouble. The Gamecocks average just 14.4 fouls per game with incredible discipline. But in the first half alone, they had nine, including two for Aliyah Boston. That put the three-time Defensive Player of the Year on the bench for the entire second quarter and limited her to zero points and three rebounds in the first half. She could have been more typically productive in the second half. But Iowa was already in control.
One area in which Iowa knew it could not compete with South Carolina was glass. (That’s life against a team deep enough for the 6’7” Kamilla Cardoso to come off the bench.) “Nobody said we were going to outrebound them,” Clark said. “That would have been a lie.” The Gamecocks finished with 26 offensive boards. Iowa was only five. But one of those helped seal the game. With Iowa leading by two with 21 seconds left, Clark missed a 3-pointer and the ball fell to Hawkeyes senior McKenna Warnock.
“Incredible,” Martin said. “It was the biggest rebound of the game.”
That eventually set up final possession for Clark. She dribbled the final second and a half, and as her teammates descended, Clark took a moment to look out over the crowd. She struck a pose, alone under the lights, arms outstretched. It was too loud for anyone to hear. But her message was clear.
This is what you came for.
“Probably everyone in America chose South Carolina, deservedly so. They have been in the #1 spot all year. They have won 42 consecutive basketball games. Why wouldn’t you choose them? Clark said. “But at the same time, the people in our locker room believed in us. That’s all you need is to believe in each other.”
Did anything of this discomfort surprise them?
One thing, Bluder said: That morning hotel conversation with Jensen happened before either of them was dressed for the game. Jensen came to the arena separately to scout, and didn’t see each other until just before kickoff, when they realized something. They had accidentally dressed as twins in identical black jackets.
“He came in about 10 minutes before the game and I told him: Oh noBluder joked about seeing Jensen’s outfit. “Everyone else has fashion people and makeup people. I have a Revlon iron in my hotel room. So that’s as far as I get.”
The iron will remain out for now. He has to dress for one more game.